A Journalist's Archive

The Mayflower
Nathaniel Philbrick
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Nathaniel Philbrick has written a well documented non-fiction book called "Mayflower."  It covers the 12 years before the Puritans boarded the Mayflower and extends until fifty years after they landed in the New World.  It sets the historic record straight, so don't expect to find any of the fairy tales taught in school about this time period.

          Not only is Plymouth Rock a bogus location for their landing, the pilgrims themselves were neither tolerant nor kind.  Philbrick points out the Puritans referred to biblical scriptures to justify their use of violence. 

          The bibliographic references Philbrick used to compile the "Mayflower" are extensive, and include a manuscript written by William Bradford and Edward Winslow giving their first hand account of the voyage across the ocean and the first 13 months in America.  In it, Bradford refers to the group as pilgrims, and Winslow writes a description of a celebration now referred to as the first Thanksgiving.  This historic record made its way back to England on the return voyage of the Fortune, the second ship to arrive at Plymouth about a month after the Thanksgiving celebration.

          The Puritans, a radical arm of the English Separatists, believed in the strict interpretation of the bible.  Fleeing religious persecution in England, they immigrated to Leiden, Holland in 1608.  But as their children began to absorb Dutch culture over the years, the Puritans decided to find a new home where they could practice their religion and raise their families in an English culture.

          Their trip to the New World aboard the Mayflower ran into trouble from the start.  In July of 1620, the pilgrims left Holland onboard a ship named the Speedwell.  Their plan was to sail to Southampton to meet up with the Mayflower and then both ships would continue on the New World.  But the Speedwell turned out to be a leaky sieve that didn't make it past Dartmouth.  While those aboard the Mayflower waited for the Speedwell to be repaired, Christopher Martin, the governor of the Mayflower, refused to let the passengers off the ship.  Consequently, they consumed half of their provisions before ever leaving England.  Finally, it was decided to abandon the Speedwell, and its passengers were stuffed onto the Mayflower, which began its ocean journey on Sept. 6, 1620.

          One fact left out of the traditional story of the Mayflower is that not all the passengers aboard the ship were fleeing religious persecution. About half the passengers, called "Strangers" by William Bradford's congregation from Leiden, had their own reasons for making the journey.  Before the ship reached its destination they decided they didn't like being ruled by a group of religious fanatics. Stephen Hopkins, one of their leaders, insisted that when they came ashore they would not follow the leadership of the Puritans.

          Martin understood the colony wouldn't last if the group split apart and he is probably the man responsible for the Mayflower Compact.  While the document mentions God, it creates a civil political body for the enactment of "Just and equal laws, ordinance, acts, constitutions, and offices..."   Before landing, forty-one men signed the Compact and elected John Carver their governor.

          Passengers went ashore in what is today known as Provincetown, where they gathered shellfish, made repairs to the Mayflower, and pilfered corn from a storage pit they found on the Cape.

           After not finding a suitable spot to build a settlement they re-boarded the ship, and searched the coastline for a better location to establish their settlement.  They named the spot Plymouth, after the last port they left in England.

          Nowhere in Bradford's account is there any report of the group stepping out onto a rock; something the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce neglects to tell visitors today. 

          Three years before the pilgrims landed, the Indian population around Massachusetts was devastated by a disease that was probably introduced by French traders.  It wiped out about 90% of the population. 

          As cold as this sounds, that was probably a blessing for the pilgrims, because Massasoit, the leader of the Pokanokets, lost most of his people and was under attack by the Narragansett Indians. His decision to maintain a fragile peace with the newcomers, who owned guns, probably had a lot to do with the further decline of his tribe.

          The pact made between the pilgrims and Massasoit included promises not to attack or steal from one another, and to come to each other's aid should any of their enemies start an unjust war.  One historical fact that remains unshaken is that the pilgrims benefited from Massasoit's knowledge and without this alliance they would not have made it through the first winter. 

          But the alliance did cause problems between the settlers and the much stronger Narragansett Indians, forcing the colonists to build an eight foot high wall around their entire settlement.  Miles Standish had the hard-nosed personality necessary to urge his men forward to complete that task.  Philbrick describes Standish as a "short, mean- tempered man, with a chip on his shoulder," who was nicked-named "Captain Shrimp" by his contemporaries.

          Other personalities were embellished in the historic record.  Squanto, the famed Indian interpreter, known for his kindness and helpfulness to the pilgrims, was actually a power hungry individual who in the end betrayed both Massasoit and the pilgrims.

          After the bean, squash, and corn corps were harvested, probably in late September 1621, Bradford decided a celebration was in order. But the term "Thanksgiving" was never used by the pilgrims and wasn't even invented until the 19th century.  The gathering that did take place was similar to an English harvest festival, a non-religious celebration dating back to the Middle Ages, which can be more accurately described as a drunken free-for-all.

          Around that time of year large flocks of birds migrate through Massachusetts, and Bradford organized a hunting expedition to shoot ducks, geese, and turkeys.   A large group of Indians attended the celebration, bringing five deer with them.

          As for religious tolerance, the pilgrims displayed very little.  They did not celebrate Christmas, but the Strangers in the group did, saying it was "against their consciences" to work on Christmas Day.  To keep the peace, Bradford reluctantly gave them the day off, only to revoke his permission after he found them enjoying themselves instead of praying.

          In 1675, a slave ship carrying 178 Indians left Plymouth; no native man or boy over the age of 14 was allowed to live in the colony.  Fifty-six years after the Mayflower landed and the pilgrims were saved by Massasoit, the Pokanokets were defeated in a devastating war known as "King Philips War."  And Philbrick reports the pilgrims "had taken conscious, methodical measures to purge the land of its people."      

          History appears so much nicer if facts can be glossed over.  Truth is often the harsh reality no one wants to remember.  Philbrick brings forth the facts about those who traveled on the Mayflower, removes the polish they have collected over the centuries, and lets us view them as real human beings.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2006 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
All Rights Reserved